John Kampfner: Margate proves investing in our culture makes economic sense

If the current hiatus in funding capital projects becomes a long-term pattern, our country's regions will suffer enormously as a result

Share
Related Topics

As I write, I am staring out to sea on the Harbour Arm in Margate. I am surrounded by thousands of visitors, from near and far, part of a new generation savouring the delights of the British seaside.

The catalyst for the influx here is the opening of Turner Contemporary. I might be a little biased, as Chair of the board, but you don't have to take it from me. In this newspaper, across the media, and – crucially – among citizen critics and social networkers, the gallery has received rave reviews since it opened just over a week ago. Critical acclaim is vital. But overall success requires more than that.

When construction began in November 2008, a large proportion of townsfolk were openly hostile or quietly sceptical. Margate has some of the toughest social and economic problems in the country. Exploitative landlords and shoddy housing stock had turned the poorest neighbourhoods into miserable homes for asylum seekers. A difficult jobs market has been made worse by the decision of Pfizer, the largest private sector employer in the region, to close its huge complex near Sandwich, a few miles down the coast. Margate's high street had the second highest proportion of boarded-up shops in England, exceeded only by Middlesbrough.

So far, so grim: it took, therefore, considerable political courage and vision from Kent County Council, yes a Conservative council, to invest heavily in a capital project for a, yes, art gallery. Why not a sports complex? A school? A hospital? The council's decision was even more risky after plans for a first architectural project were abandoned when costs spiralled.

I was convinced of the argument from the outset; it was much tougher, however, to persuade others of the logic. Turner Contemporary – if all went well – would become a magnet for international tourism. Jobs would be created, not just in the gallery (a small number), but more crucially a new spirit of entrepreneurialism in the town and outlying areas would spawn hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, shops, private galleries and more.

This has, I am delighted to say, already begun. The Old Town, an enticing warren of lanes just behind the sea front, is packed with eclectic boutiques, pubs and cafes. With flair and business savvy, other parts of the town will follow suit. Some 40 small firms have opened since January – in the midst of a deep recession. While there remains a small but vocal pocket of dissenters, the vast majority of the town has rallied round, and are becoming Turner Contemporary's most effective ambassadors.

So what are the broader lessons? It helps when a capital project is properly managed. This marvellous building, designed by the UK's architect of the moment, David Chipperfield, was delivered on time and on budget – a rare occurrence in the UK. Buildings are buildings. British politicians and opinion formers are often bashful about making a case that is more than economic and utilitarian, but there is much evidence over the years that great, and accessible, art (not an oxymoron) can lift communities, having a direct impact on health, education and happiness.

Anecdotally, I believe we have already begun this in Margate. On the first of our four preview nights, a lifeboat operator told me he had never been in a gallery before, how much he was enjoying it, and how he and his friends would come back often. It had, he said, changed his perspective.

The publicity Turner Contemporary achieved (dozens of foreign journalists flocked to the site for a tour) has given it a unique place in the cultural landscape; but it is not unique. Across the south east a number of galleries have appeared or been spruced up over the past decade and a half – from Towner in Eastbourne, to De La Warr in Bexhill and soon Jerwood in Hastings and FirstSite in Colchester. The picture is similar elsewhere. Birmingham has the Ikon; Nottingham Contemporary is a striking addition to that city; Arnolfini is a landmark in Bristol's thriving dock area. In the North East, the Baltic has given Newcastle and Gateshead a lift, as MIMA has done for Middlesbrough.

Galleries, theatres and other institutions in the regions rely on a familiar mix of local authority and Arts Council funding, with a smattering of privately raised money from foundations and individuals. Having been an outsider who has always worked in the private sector, I can sympathise with the Coalition Government's demand for a harder-headed approach to arts funding. Arts institutions and other third sector bodies should not rely on being "helped" or "saved" by the state – just because they are, or think they are, "doing good". In broad terms, Darwinian rules should apply. The best will survive and thrive, if they have the right combination of excellence, inclusiveness, education and a strong business model. The Arts Council has already recognised that; hard-pressed local authorities would score an economic own goal if they cut back on their prized cultural assets.

The real problem is going to be the funding for capital projects. The last in this generation is the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield, Chipperfield's sister project, which opens next month. Neither of his extraordinary buildings, nor pretty much any of the galleries I have mentioned, would be built if they had started out according to current priorities. If this hiatus becomes a long-term pattern, the UK's regions will suffer enormously as a result.

Culture-led regeneration works – almost always. There have been one or two examples of failure over the past decade and a half, but these have occurred through poor management or governance. The principle is not at stake. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is held up as the great example, and it is. But one does not have to look overseas to see the correlation between attendance at galleries, the improvement in the lived environment, local pride and ambition and the benefits for local people.

In Bilbao it took a couple of years for levels of service to meet the expectation of the international traveller. In Margate it is already beginning, although much more needs to be done. Quick-witted entrepreneurs will clean up if they open attractive and affordable hotels, restaurants and shops. A cycle of decline can be reversed. A single building is never going to achieve regeneration on its own. It sows the seeds, requiring local decision-makers to exploit the opportunities presented. At times of hardship, it requires more such examples, not fewer. The greatest poverty of all is poverty of aspiration.



John Kampfner is Chair of Turner Contemporary. He is also Chief Executive of Index on Censorship

twitter.com/johnkampfner

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Would you fork out to spend time on Sting's Tuscan estate?  

Happy to pay for the privilege of picking olives? Then Sting might have a job for you...

John Walsh
Clockwise from top: Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq (main picture), Adil Hussain, Umar Razaq and Mohsin Khan were sentenced for grooming teenage girls for sex in 2010.  

Nothing can make up for the trauma of Rotherham's abused young girls, but many more heads must roll

Jane Merrick
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?